Thursday, May 16, 2024

Silly Human Questions About Art

 When it comes to writing or video, spontaneity is a challenge for me. I wanted to throw off the shackles of planning, so one day I just launched my camera app, put on a hat to hide my bad hair (okay, not very spontaneous), clicked the Record button, and said a few things that came to mind about my new novel. 

But then… I couldn’t help myself, I had to do some post-production, because my talking head just doesn’t give enough feeling for the content of the book. Here is the semi-spontaneous result. I hope you’ll take 56 seconds to watch it. Then continue reading below.

For this video to function as intended (to give an impression of the book’s content), it required editing. It needed a second pass. Vocal flubs had to be removed, other images added, music mixed in, all accomplished with a certain precision that was not present in the first spontaneous effort. Obviously, it’s a lot like the process of writing: a first draft, then revisions, then a final edit.

The mama robin who built this nest put in a lot of work as well. The biological imperative is both pure spontaneity and hard-wired automatic behavior, an “instinct.” Maybe some robins are more skilled than others, but I’ll bet most of their nests are like this one: a near-solid mud bowl (clearly needed as a safe place to raise their young), crafted in an almost perfect circle (why?). Form may follow function, but here’s a case where symmetrical beauty is apparently a built-in bonus. The instinctual drive, the spontaneous impulse, results in both pragmatic functionality and aesthetic precision. No second pass required. 

How do they do that? I won’t attempt to answer that question. 

What I am interested in is the driving force. A robin is driven by eons of evolved instinct to build its nest, and to build it in just that way. It does not make a decision to do so; it just begins building when the season triggers the instinct. Free will is not involved. 

To what degree is free will involved in my so-called “decision” to write fiction?

I’ve spoken to other writers who’ve had an experience similar to mine. Feeling discouraged with the marketplace, we’ve decided to give up writing. Maybe we feel briefly relieved of a burden. But not for long. Soon, maybe within mere days, we’re back at it, either forced or enticed by… something. What? We may claim it’s the characters speaking irresistibly in our heads. But what is behind that?

Perhaps there’s an elemental compulsion with which one is either in tune or hopelessly struggling against, on the order of Dylan Thomas’ “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” The life force. A law of nature, a bedrock truth.

The late Paul Auster had a lot to say on this subject. “It’s not that writing brings me a lot of pleasure,” he once said in an interview, “but not doing it is worse.” One of his non-fiction books is the 1991 essay collection The Art of Hunger. In the title piece, he delves into two of my favorite works: first, in depth, Knut Hamson’s novel Hunger, capped by Franz Kafka’s story, “The Hunger Artist.” He gives a lucid, surgical analysis that is worth reading in full, but right now my focus is on what Auster appears to be saying about the real art of the modern world:

“It is first of all an art that is indistinguishable from the life of the artist who makes it…an art that is the direct expression of the effort to express itself. In other words, an art of hunger.”

In a review of the collection, the Chicago Tribune says, “Auster clearly shows that literature begins and ends outside literature, as something one does to live.”

Writing as an act of survival. Writing because one has no choice.

In a fundamental way, this connects to my new novel, A Book with No Author. The book is an investigation into where stories come from. What is the difference between life lived and life told? Do you own your life story? One of the characters is a writer who appears to have stolen the life stories of others – but without understanding how he did it. Among the last words we hear from him are these: “Believe me, I tried to stop it, this mad dictation. But... I couldn’t dodge the influx, the dive-bombing stream of language targeted on my cerebral cortex. The words, the voices, the images, they just wouldn’t leave me alone.”

He had no choice. Is this mental illness, or is it simply the plight of an artist? And what is an artist but one who is born with this inexplicable drive?

In the video above, the question arises: When I say “I,” what do I really mean? Do I mean all these events that have happened to me, that make up the story of my life? Do I mean the personality I’ve developed with which to interact with the world? Or do I mean something deeper than either of those, that foundational presence from which springs, without my conscious will, the drive to create?

I started this exercise by talking about spontaneity. To be fully “spontaneous”... isn’t that just to follow an irresistible impulse? A naturally-occurring drive, just like the one that tells us we must eat to live? The frequent lack of spontaneity that I perceive in myself is actually only recognizable as a surface artifact of the fundamental, ever-present hunger for self-expression, which will have its way, spontaneous or not. To resist it is doom.

Maybe the only difference between me (or you) and the robin is self-awareness. It’s comical to imagine a robin bothering with all this contorted contemplation, questioning its own instincts, asking why and how and jabbering to other robins, hoping they’ll understand. 

We humans are so silly.

Monday, January 29, 2024

HOW CAN A BOOK HAVE NO AUTHOR? (in which I interview myself)

Image by <a href="">OpenClipart-Vectors</a> from <a href="">Pixabay</a>
My new novel is called A Book with No Author (see the cover in the right-hand column). Like a child just launching into the big wide world, this book is very demanding. It’s asking for support. It wants me to talk about it more, so I will heed its wishes. Maybe the best way is to do something that could almost be a scene from the novel, in which identities are multiple. I’ll interview myself. Or rather, BR1 will interview BR2.

BR1: A book without an author? Is this a joke?

BR2: Hold on. Let’s do this without a condescending attitude.

BR1: Okay, my apologies. Why the paradoxical title?

BR2: I like paradox, so it’s a title that would appeal to me as a reader. It may seem that I’m negating myself as an author, and maybe that’s true because sometimes it seems that stories come out of the ether rather than out of the lump of gray matter inside my skull. I often wonder, what is authorship, exactly? Is it really creation from scratch or is it something more like taking dictation from the cosmos?

BR1: Maybe those are the same thing.

BR2: Maybe. But to bring the title a little more down to earth—there is a book within the book, an abandoned manuscript whose author can’t be found. The search for the elusive author is a central plot element of the novel.

BR1: Hmm…a search for the author. Sounds like a metaphor.

BR2: Well, I want readers to interpret it in whatever way appeals to them. The book is also an exploration of identity, as well as—

BR1: So it’s a metaphysical detective story. I heard that’s a thing.

BR2: Okay, I guess it could fit that category. I don’t like categories, but apparently books require one these days. I was just going to add that this novel is also a story about people’s everyday struggles with relationships, family, work, substance abuse, religion. And place.

BR1: Where is the story set?

BR2: It takes place mostly in Manhattan and New Jersey, and there are several significant scenes out west in Utah. The final section is set in the town of Woodstock, New York, where I live. And where you live, too.

BR1: Of course. And I happen to know that there is a character in the book with my name. Which is also your name. What’s up with that?

BR2: I like playing little metafictional games, like we sometimes see in Nabokov’s work, Paul Auster’s work, and others. It makes writing more fun for me. And for readers as well—maybe they have a richer, more multi-layered experience, when they can wonder about the fuzzy borderline between truth and fiction, and think about other things besides the plot.

BR1: You still haven’t actually said much about the plot of your novel.

BR2: Well, it’s rather convoluted. In the book within the book, a freelance videographer in New York City, recovering from a difficult divorce, discovers that someone else has written and published fiction about his private life. This puts him into a spiral of dysfunction that exacerbates the pre-existing problems with his ex, his kids, his livelihood, his own self-image. On another level, the man who reads this story in a manuscript that arrived in the mail by mistake, also becomes obsessed with finding the author, and encounters his own set of problems.

BR1: Sounds a bit like 3D chess or something.

BR2: Well, one reader called it a Rubik’s Cube, which I like, but it’s much more than just a puzzle to be solved. She also said it was “tenderly invested in characters,” which is what I hope to do in all my work. To ground it in human issues, and then take flights of fancy that question reality, et cetera.

BR1: This all seems to be an exercise in poioumenon.

BR2: In what? Did you just make up that word?

BR1: No, it’s a real thing. Poioumenon. It refers to a specific type of metafiction in which the story deals with the process of creation.

BR2: Okay, if you say so. I like it!

Thanks for reading. To learn more, please visit the Recital Publishing website.

To hear me narrate an excerpt from the book, as well as answer some real interview questions, I hope you’ll relax for a half hour and listen to this episode of The Strange Recital podcast: